When my sons were playing high school football, it was not unusual for me to drop $200 at the grocery store to stock up on chicken, hamburger, vegetables, whole-grain pasta and frozen fruit (for the whey protein smoothies they liked to make after practice).
Typically, within a few days, the food had vanished — inhaled by two, 200-plus-pound giants, and sometimes a few of their friends.
The concept of $200 took on a whole new meaning when I visited the village of Wolayta, in Ethiopia, to witness a community food distribution.
The night before, as she prepared me for what I would see, Soddo orphanage director Stephne Bowers explained the serendipitous timing of this opportunity. Someone had made an unexpected $200 donation to the food distribution project.
“That means more than twice the number of people who were at the last food distribution can come,” she said.
This is what $200 can buy: a few dozen sacks of dried corn that will feed 200 people one meal a day for one month. Dried corn.
For their share of the bounty, each person in the church courtyard waited several hours. They waited for all the dignitaries and guests to arrive. They waited through a church service (admitedly very moving) and then they waited in line to have their fingerprints recorded. Most cannot read or write, but before they could claim their share of the food they had to prove that they were on the list of approved recipients. A local policeman stood nearby overseeing the procedure.
Though the food appeared because of a foreigner’s donation, organizers were adamant that the actual distribution be conducted by locals. Somber-faced women did the work on the ground, scooping up carefully measured amounts to place in sacks for each recipient. A few young men did the heavy lifting; as each sack was emptied, they’d climb the dwindling mountain to retrieve another one and pour its contents onto a woven mat covering the ground.
My journalist’s instincts finally overcame my personal sense of discomfort and the horror I felt realizing how little this short-term relief effort would really impact the lives of these people. They were excited and grateful. How could I be otherwise?
It was time to stop holding myself at a distance. I removed my camera’s zoom lens and replaced it with the regular lens, which I knew would force me to get closer to my subjects. I walked carefully through the throng of people to the front of the courtyard. I took a few pictures of the women who measured the corn with their hands and colorful plastic scoops. I wondered whether there was any true nutritional value to dried corn — and what these people would do with it to render it edible.
Suddenly a young man approached me with a plastic crate of bottled sodas. “Coca Cola?” he asked. I demurred, sickened at the thought of drinking empty, sugary calories in front of these people who were subsisting on so little. Then I saw Brian deGuzman on a nearby bench, a bottled soda in his hand. (He and his wife Keri, with whom I made this trip, are the parents of four children adopted from Ethiopia.)
“Take it,” his eyes urged me. “Respect,” he said softly and knowingly. I thanked the young man, grabbed a soda and forced myself to take a few sips.
I noticed a group of children huddled by the side of the straw mat. At first I thought they were playing. I put down my soda, picked up my camera and went to watch. I even took a few pictures before I realized what they were actually doing. At their mothers’ bidding, no doubt, these children were hovering closely beside the sacks, scratching the ground to retrieve kernels of corn that ricocheted off the mat as the sacks were emptied. In almost equal measure, they filled plastic, grocery-store-type bags with corn, dirt and dried grass.
One of the girls noticed my camera and broke into a beautiful smile. I took her picture. I showed her the image in the display window. She grinned. Other children crowded around to look. Another child touched my arm, breaking the language barrier between us with a clear gesture that he, too, wanted to be photographed. And another. And another.
As I snapped photos and showed them to my appreciative audience, I realized something. For the first time during nearly two hours I’d already been in this crowded, cramped and very unpleasant-smelling gathering of the area’s poorest residents, I had failed to make eye contact with a single person. In some misplaced sense of protecting them from my outsider’s glare, I’d really been protecting myself from seeing them — from recognizing them as living, breathing, pain-and-joy-feeling human beings.
The children opened my eyes. When I dropped my defenses and engaged in their playful modeling session, I felt a connection. And with it, a profound sense of gratitude for the moment. In the midst of all this suffering, exhaustion, illness, starvation and grief, there was a shared moment of joy. And for that day, it was enough.